Book Reviews


Our radical history

Zinn on History by Howard Zinn, Seven Stories Press, New York, 2001.

Readers may be familiar with the work of the radical American historian and activist, Howard Zinn. It includes the witty, humane play Marx in Soho, as well as his magnificent Peoples Histories, of the United States and the twentieth century. During the Vietnam War it was Zinn, together with Noam Chomsky, who helped copy, smuggle out and then edit and publish the Pentagon Papers, official documents that illustrated the full and savage involvement of the American ruling class in the appalling invasion and destruction of South-East Asia.

This current volume is a collection of Zinn’s essays that date from the mid-sixties to last year, and concern themselves with broadly historical themes—sketches of individuals, tales of action, meditations on the role of the academic and history in general, on Marx and “Marxism”.

This sense of history shines through in his essay on the Seattle protests. Zinn welcomes the shift away from the single issue campaigns that characterised much of left-wing US protest in the eighties and nineties, and a growing targeting of capitalism itself. He reminds readers of North America’s rich (and sometimes overlooked) history of class resistance and militancy. Seattle was the stage for a general strike in 1919 of some 35,000 dock workers. Moreover, the area was often deeply militant, with the “Wobblies” (the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World) strong and much anti-war agitation against US involvement in World War I. So often today’s anti-capitalist protestors are ignorant of this legacy; Zinn’s work is going some way to remedying this.

Socialists will, I think be most interested on his thoughts about Marx and his ideas. Zinn, like Marx before him declares “je ne suis pas marxiste!” (“I am not a Marxist!”). The present reviewer feels the same. Marx’s turn of wit was, on this occasion given to one Pieper, a young German sychopant (or “nudnik”, as Zinn calls him in wonderfully colourful Yiddish)¸ a self-styled “Marxist”, who was attempting to get Marx to attend his Karl Marx society. Zinn, in quoting Marx’s weary and witty reply is saying that we ought to reflect on what is relevant and alive in Marx’s writings, rather than turning them into sterile dogma.

Marx wasn’t just a scholar, but an activist and commentator on the world he often painfully lived in. Zinn points readers to the Theses on Feurbach and the 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts. These are not “early” or “immature” works, he says, but rather rich in insights that are still as profoundly relevant as when they were written. The alienation and exploitation produced under capitalism are appalling; “It [The 1844 Manuscript] simply stated (but did not state simply) that the capitalist system violates whatever it means to be human”. To overcome this alienation a complete change—indeed , a transcendence—of capitalist society’s social, economic and political relationships is required. Zinn reminds us of Marx’s hostility towards nationalism, and points out that he would have been horrified by the so-called “socialist” societies that Stalinism created. Marx instead lauded the 1871 Paris Commune with its direct democracy, egalitarianism, levelling of wages and abolition of the guillotine as his idea of the “dictatorship of the proletariat”, as he called the political transition to a socialist society.

The rest of the book is devoted to accounts of Zinn’s own activism, mainly against the war in Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement. One of the best essays is on the Freedom Schools in Mississippi the free, egalitarian summer schools for poor blacks that Zinn and others set up in 1964, often at risk of injury and death. Zinn reminds us that “education is not just a tool of indoctrination, but a powerful tool of emancipation as well.

I can’t pretend to agree with Zinn all the time; yes, some of Marx’s economics is dense and difficult, but an understanding of surplus value and commodity production is vital to understanding capitalism. Zinn is also too often prone to supporting reformism on grounds of “pragmatism”, provision of public healthcare in the US being a case in point. However, given where he comes from and the generation he belongs to, it is at least understandable. “Human beings make history, but not always in circumstances of their own choosing,” as Uncle Charlie was fond of saying. Given all the history out there being written by bourgeois apologists, plodding careerist empiricists, dull local-fixated antiquarians and childish, pretentious postmodernists, we need more radical historians like Howard Zinn. A touching and worthwhile collection; read it and start reading and researching your own radical history.

Obsolete minority action

Obsolete Communism. The Left-Wing Alternative. By Daniel & Gabriel Cohn-Bendit. AK Press, 2001. £12.

Books written by participants in events are always interesting if only because they are part of the documentary evidence as to what happened. The book by Daniel Cohn-Bendit, who was prominent in the student movement which led to the “May events” in France in 1968, and his brother Gabriel (who wrote the theoretical parts) is no exception. Written in 1968 shortly after the events, and now republished by AK Press, it gives a good insight into what many of the radicalised students thought.

The Cohn-Bendits called for a revolution without leaders to abolish the wages system. They were therefore implacably opposed to Leninism and its concept of a centralised vanguard to lead the working class. A large part of the book in fact is devoted to exposing, on the one hand, the French Communist Party (PCF) and its claim to be the sole legitimate representative of the French working class and, on the other, how the Bolsheviks, under Lenin and Trotsky, introduced state capitalism into Russia, with their vanguard as the new managerial ruling class imposing one-man management in the state-owned factories and bloodily suppressing working-class resistance in Krondstadt in 1921. In fact the English title does not convey the full anti-Leninist significance of a literal translation of the original French title – Leftism: Remedy for the Senile Disorder of Communism – which was an obvious play on the title of Lenin’s 1920 pamphlet Leftwing Communism: An Infantile Disorder.

The rest of the book is devoted to describing and analysing the events themselves – student occupation of the universities, street battles, followed by a general strike with many factory occupations involving at its height some 10 million workers – and including a good analysis of the role of universities under capitalism (to train cadres to run industry and the state on behalf of the capitalist class).

A revolution without leaders to abolish the wages system? Implacable opposition to Leninism and all its works? We can go along with that; in fact it’s what we have always said and done. But that’s as far as our agreement can go. The Cohn-Bendits envisaged “the revolution” as involving the overthrow of the government by mass street demonstrations and the occupation, and then the running, of workplaces by the workers. They argued that this could be sparked off by a “militant minority” provoking the state to drop its mask, as the students did by occupying the universities and provoking the police to try to dislodge them. In fact, they imagined that they nearly sparked off such a revolution, if only the students and others had taken over the finance and education ministries on the night of 24 May and if only the workers had had the self-confidence not just to occupy their workplaces but to have restarted production under their own control and management.

If only. Such a scenario would only have had any chance of working if workers were already socialist-minded; but they weren’t. This is not to say that the workers in France in 1968 were not discontented, nor that they should not have gone on strike. But it was discontent with their treatment under capitalism, not with capitalism as such.

The Gaullist regime, installed in 1958 following a mutiny by the army in Algeria, had imposed a virtual wage freeze for ten years and the employers had managed their businesses in a particularly authoritarian way. The PCF and the trade union federation it controlled, the CGT, tried to keep the issue as one of economic demands (higher wages and benefits, more consultation of workers, etc). The Cohn-Bendits criticised them severely for this but, ironically, when the PCF did finally introduce a political element by calling for a change of government (not what the Cohn-Bendits wanted of course) they played into De Gaulle’s hands. He immediately called an election on the theme “Who governs: Me or the Communists?” and got the answer he wanted.

Ironically too, although views such as those expressed here by the Cohn-Bendits got a boost, the main conclusion that most of the “militant minority” drew from the failure of May 1968 to overthrow capitalism was that this was because there hadn’t been a strong enough vanguard party to direct the events. After 1968 Leninism, in the form of Trotskyism, Maoism, Castroism, Guevaraism, Ho Chi Minhism, flourished as never before and, although such views are now not as popular as they became in the 1970s, we are still suffering from this legacy.

While his brother Gabriel remained an anarchist, Daniel Cohn-Bendit eventually abandoned the claim to be a revolutionary to become an open reformist. He now sits as a Green Party member of the European Parliament. Clearly he was wrong to have gone reformist, but at least he now recognises that a “militant minority” cannot provoke a non-socialist-minded working class into carrying out a socialist revolution.

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